Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The State of Science Blogging

 
There's an interesting discussion going on over at Bayblab on The State of Science Blogging. The commenters are responding to some provocation by Anonymous Coward[1] who took a look at the top five science blogs and said,
Of those only Cognitive daily is consistantly talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists. But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive. It's been said before, you can't reason somebody out of a position in which they didn't reason themselves into. And it worries me because to the lay audience listening to PZ Myers (the 800lb gorilla), it would seem that science's purpose is to attack religion. In fact I suspect the blog gets most of its traffic from creationists. According to technorati, his top tags are "Creationism, godlessness, humor, kooks, politics, religion, weblog, weirdness", so should it really count as a science blog?

If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That's right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I'm afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.
One of the most interesting comments comes from Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily ....
So... the most popular science blogs cover the most popular topics related to science?

You also seem to be saying that you wish these bloggers would write about less popular topics. But that would make them... less popular. And then other science blogs would become the most popular. Then you could complain about those blogs.

At least you'd have something to write about.
This is a very important point. Many of us are interested in blogging about science and in teaching science. But you can't be an effective advocate for science if you don't have an audience. One way to get an audience is to blog about science related issues that are controversial and then sneak in some good science blogs when people come to visit.

In my case, that's not the only motive for blogging about rationalism and superstition. I happen to have (at least) two interests in life and I like to blog about everything that interests me. As it turns out, there are more people interested in the conflict between science and religion—or the war in the Middle East—than in hard-core science. I posted a whole series of articles on The Three Domain Hypothesis and got only a handful of comments. The series on junk DNA is bringing in just a trickle of interested readers. On the other hand, when I post about religion or politics there are dozens of comments and a lively discussion ensues.


1. I don't like linking to anonymous bloggers. In the future I'm going to make it a policy to only link to bloggers who identify themselves, except under rare circumstances.

33 comments:

  1. You can probably track this, but I wouldn't necessarily that your non-science posts have less impact. People are just more likely to comment on matters of opinion like politics and religion, than on matters of fact. I for one, appreciate the science posts more, but I would imagine I would have less to add to an article on the Krebs Cycle than an article on the Harper government, even if the Krebs article has more impact to me.

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  2. You're one of the top 5 science blogs???

    I'd give you and PZ more credit because of the quality of most of your research posts, even if it is a minority your more banal fun-making antireligious posts and the like. I give you extra credit for posting a lot of educational stuff anbout molecular biology.

    On the other hand I do think there is an "Atheism Inc" feeling and we cannot ignore the truth that exploitation of the antireligious topic "pays" in terms of visits or straightforward money (I think mostly thanks to the conspicuous stupidity shown by some religious people).
    If you over and over again are going about religion, defensors of evolution start coming across as a "PETA" for arrogant atheist science nerds morbidly obsessed with religious stupidity (possibly the actual case of PZ)
    But regardless of the good or bad for science of this antireligiosity, there is a buck in it and so the likes of Dawkins and PZ, will continue to make a living of it. Without further debate

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  3. Good, even tempered response Larry. I have always liked the science content of your blog. I tend to not comment on science posts of yours simply because usually you've covered all the bases.
    I dislike your new stance on anonymous bloggers. Judge comments and posts on content not on the authors. It isn't fair to judge a post simply because the poster doesn't have a Dr. in front of their name or doesn't want to be identified outside of the discussion. This is especially true for unestablished scientists, such as the students who blog on bayblab, who would like to express dissenting opinion without risking future repercussions. Perhaps your name carries weight with it but the whole point of these internet discussions is to be inclusive. Could you be more clear on exactly why you don't like anonymous blogging? It seems elitist or something to me.

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  4. Larry,
    That's a good response, and I certainly wouldn't want to dictate what someone can and can't blog about. It's true that you can't be an effective advocate without an audience, but at what point do demographics become important? Anyhow, I certainly enjoy the science posts and I'll definitely try to participate more in those discussions.

    Where I take issue with your comment is your new policy regarding anonymous bloggers. The anonymity issue comes up frequently in internet discussions - usually in the context that an argument carries no weight without a name or face behind it. Shouldn't a post/argument be weighed on its merits, not who wrote it? It seems that you'd be disregarding a lot of good blog content (including a reasonable number of ScienceBlogs writers) by disregarding anonymous writers as a general rule. Besides, there are legitimate reasons for blogging anonymously. As Rob above points out, blog writing may have future career implications. Or worse. Recent events in California demonstrate that there are crazy people out there who will go to extremes if they don't like what you do or say. Obviously I don't worry about the threat of violence when I blog, but some might. Even the Bayblab has been threatened with legal action because of a post criticizing a local cancer quack. The veil of anonymity is a thin shield, indeed but it still lets some people blog productively without worry.

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  5. Larry,

    Thanks for the straight-talk as always. Since I'm a pseudononymous blogger I suppose you'll probably ignore my comment, but you raised an interesting point re blogging on religion and politics.

    I certainly agree that people instinctually get riled up about religion and politics. So it's easy to push those buttons to get people talking. The question is does appealing to these primitive, irrational instincts promote a productive discussion? Are any minds being changed, or is understanding being achieved? Isn't it after all these very instincts to fight about these stupid things that propagates war in the first place?

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  6. On the other hand, when I post about religion or politics there are dozens of comments and a lively discussion ensues.

    Your science posts are a great resource, I save them and have studied from them for exams. Your religion or politics posts, OTOH, like every other religon and politics article on the internet, are forgotten in minutes.

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  7. I think there is a difference between truly anonymous individuals and those who blog under an established pseudonymous identity. Those in the latter group may well have good reasons for keeping their identity secret, but they can nevertheless build up credibility over time by consistently posting noteworthy material.

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  8. It seems silly to complain that specialized topics only attract a small (specialized) audience, doesn't it?

    I think aggregators, such as The DNA Network, are a good idea; I'd like to see more specialist bloggers linking up with each other like that.

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  9. I can't think of many causes that are more important, right now, than challenging the cognitive and moral authority of religion. If the blogs that are doing that end up being popular, then that's a good thing from my viewpoint.

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  10. You know, Sb really is a mixed bag, and the "Atheists Inc." comment is a good one. It's not that there are atheists who blog on Sb. It's that there are so very many bloggers that have unbelief as a major theme. (Some, like PZ, are really good. Some are just crap.)

    But I don't think that means there's any particular problem with Sb, unless the proprietors there actually prefer mediocre atheist bloggers. (Some days it looks like that to me. Some days it doesn't.) Rather, I think this indicates that there's a problem in Christendom (and other religious circles), namely that there aren't enough believing scientists able and/or willing to blog on science and to do it well.

    I'm doing my best in that department, but if you look in my blogroll for solid science, you'll find blogs run mostly by skeptics. Is that because I'm partial to atheists? (Heh. Maybe. I can get pretty tired of my own kind.) I tend to think it's because I'm partial to good science.

    So while I think Sb is a bit out of control, and many of its blogs are troll-bait, I don't see the point of bashing Sb for being successful. It's like whining about reality TV.

    Steve Matheson

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  11. what is your issue with anonymous blogging that dissuades you from linking?

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  12. What is your beef with anonymous bloggers? How does being anonymous detract from the quality of our posts?

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  13. Larry says that:

    Many of us are interested in blogging about science and in teaching science. But you can't be an effective advocate for science if you don't have an audience. One way to get an audience is to blog about science related issues that are controversial and then sneak in some good science blogs when people come to visit.

    I agree, and the most effective way to do that for a North American audience is to blog about creationism, bar none.

    Other ways include sex scandals, money, pop psychology, career tips and pub science curiosities. Unfortunately, in my experience even these topics are nowhere as attention-grabbing as creationist/pseudoscience-bashing.

    Of course a science blog should be mainly about science, but if the target audience is regular readers, then peer-reviewed research should not be the primary focus.

    I don't like linking to anonymous bloggers. In the future I'm going to make it a policy to only link to bloggers who identify themselves, except under rare circumstances.

    I also prefer bloggers to reveal their real identity, though it is understandable that some of them are worried about their future careers. However, personally I find that using my real name doesn't make me any less anonymous in the sheer immensity of the over 100-million-strong blogosphere.

    If I weren't myself I'd have forgotten about myself the moment I leave your blog.

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  14. Rob wrote:


    It isn't fair to judge a post simply because the poster doesn't have a Dr. in front of their name or doesn't want to be identified outside of the discussion. This is especially true for unestablished scientists, such as the students who blog on bayblab, who would like to express dissenting opinion without risking future repercussions.


    I could buy the use of anonymity for an outspoken political blogger in a country where you might get thrown in jail and/or tortured for expressing such views.

    But for a grad student or junior professor? I'd like to hear the arguments fleshed out a little bit more.

    Criticism is critical to scientific culture, and if someone lower on the food chain points out logical or methodological flaws in someone's work, why should they hide behind a mask? If the criticism is justified, then what's the issue? If the criticism is unjustified, then why are they spouting it in the first place?

    Or is it that the anonymous science blogger wants to blog about intimate personal issues without being judged?

    I honestly don't get it...please explain.

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  15. George in Oregon

    Larry, I would necessarily take the number of comments as pure indicator of interest. I find your and PZ's science posts interesting and read them all. I usually do not comment because I cannot really add anything. On the interface of science and religion and society, I have lots of opinions.

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  16. How exactly is this a useful metric with which to determine the top science blogs?

    "Rankings are based on the number of incoming links from other indexed science blogs and some secret Postgenomic sauce."

    You are one of the best around Larry but that list does not seem too useful to me. For example, wouldn't hosting popular carnival push a blog up on the list for a while?

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  17. Criticism is critical to scientific culture, and if someone lower on the food chain points out logical or methodological flaws in someone's work, why should they hide behind a mask? If the criticism is justified, then what's the issue? If the criticism is unjustified, then why are they spouting it in the first place?
    Why do you need to know they are lower on the food chain? Do you weigh peoples comments based on their real identity? If the criticism is justified why do you need to know who its from? I think the arguments you make work both ways. I don't understand why people would insist upon knowing who someone is in a blog format. Or as Larry proposes on ignoring anonymous bloggers as if somehow their ideas are less valid.
    Personally I don't actually think I am anonymously blogging. It would be very easy for someone to figure out who I am. It's just more hassle to link personal identification to my blog ID. And why should I? Maybe this sounds paranoid but in this day of personal information aggregation it isn't worth my time to put it together for google.
    I also barely get enough face time with people I know in real life so I'm sorry but I don't want you to look me up or give me a phone call. Let's just keep our relationship here, on the internet. Nothing personal.

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  18. rob says,

    I don't understand why people would insist upon knowing who someone is in a blog format. Or as Larry proposes on ignoring anonymous bloggers as if somehow their ideas are less valid.

    I'm not objecting to anonymous blogs because their ideas are less valid. Like you, I'm perfectly capable of evaluating an argument without knowing who makes it.

    What I object to is people who post opinions and criticisms while hiding behind a pseudonym. I admire people who stand up for what they believe and who take responsibility for what they say on their blogs.

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  19. Rob says: It's just more hassle to link personal identification to my blog ID. And why should I? Maybe this sounds paranoid but in this day of personal information aggregation it isn't worth my time to put it together for google.
    I also barely get enough face time with people I know in real life so I'm sorry but I don't want you to look me up or give me a phone call.


    So your reasons for not communicating with others under your real name are that it is a hassle to identify yourself and you apparently don't want to be inundated with unsolicited communications?

    That's pretty weak justification.

    Also, your "why not?" answer to the question of why to use anonymity is likewise weak (see, I'm not evaluating the argument based on who you are). The impetus is on the anonymous to justify why they are not revealing their identity. As I mentioned before, protection from political persecution or bodily harm are pretty good justifications. Not wanting unsolicited emails from the hordes of people who would inevitably seek to stalk you seems pretty weak. But this wasn't your original justification anyway. Supposedly "future repurcussions" in their career were reason enough to blog and comment anonymously.

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  20. The impetus is on the anonymous to justify why they are not revealing their identity.

    Why is there a need to justify it?

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  21. What I object to is people who post opinions and criticisms while hiding behind a pseudonym. I admire people who stand up for what they believe and who take responsibility for what they say on their blogs.
    Anonymous blogs are still known by name and a reputation or lack of one can still be determined by the reader. What does this have to do with real identities? What you are saying is that there are no 'real life' consequences/rewards to comments or posts made by anonymous bloggers. What kind of consequences/rewards require my personal identification outside the blogosphere? Personally I am not interested in them. I go by 'rob', what else do you need? Seriously, let me know what other personal information about myself is relevant, at all, to the discussions here on Sandwalk.
    I will concede the point that taking responsibility outside the blogosphere for statements made is admirable, Larry and Derek. But it doesn't make your discussions any better.
    derek james
    The impetus is on the anonymous to justify why they are not revealing their identity.
    Are you really interested in hearing every anonymous bloggers personal reasons for being anonymous? And besides why does it have to be justified? I think we are being sidetracked on the issue of personal reasons for anonymous blogging and it's validity. ie ignoring anonymous bloggers simply because they are anonymous.

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  22. Isn't the entire point of a blog to give a whole view of yourself, your opinions and thoughts, rather than pursuing merely your professional meditations?

    Although it is fun to read bloggers takes on various new papers, especially because you can hear from experts in the field reacting to a paper in days to weeks rather than months to years, a lot of people also want to see the person behind the science. It makes for a good read, and is this not all about entertainment?

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  23. Creationists and sciencebloggers seem to exist in a wierd symbiotic partnership. I read last year that most of the web traffic to the Discovery Institutes sites comes from pro-science sites and obviously stories about creationists make up a good percentage of scienceblog topics. I find it terribly hypocritical to decry creationists while at the same time apparently promoting the idea to non scientific readers that there exists some sort of dichotomy of scientific viewpoints - science on one hand and creationism on the other.

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  24. I read your 'Ben Stein' blog post.

    Well, well, well, (Now that’s a “Deep” subject) it appears that Ben Stein has a lill’ movie.

    I have a wee film/research too but unlike Mr. Stein mine illuminates AND entertains in about five minutes and, A-N-D, it’s FREE!

    Mr. Stein (BTW: moi’s film/research tells how the Jewish people REALLY came about) charges you for propaganda and I give the human race knowledge for free, ain’t I a moron? Perhaps.


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7iQRFP_e90


    And here is moi’s, officially ignored, film/research
    into the origin of Christendom.

    Since the film is
    the awful facts it must be disregarded by those that tout
    the beautiful untruths.

    The Religious Authorities, and those that GAIN from there being religions [e.g., People in the “Business” of Atheism], always say NOT to view that which they DO want you to see and avert their eyes, and remain quite silent, about that which they hope you will not chance upon.

    Part I

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzY2bVsZK5s

    Part II

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckuqPulRGk

    If there were a place, and there is, where intelligence that rises little higher than our human brain stems’ capacity WERE allowed Mr. Stein WOULD be found there, hence. . .check your local theater listings for Mr. Stein and murmuring mermaids and yammering yaks - talkin’ terrorists - pontificating puppies - babbling babes – enunciating elephants – answering ants – zinging zombies - replying Rambos a al lambos – and many more such “Levels,” though a basically base intellectual strata they t’were, ‘tis and t’will be.

    However, Ben Stein is only doing exactly what moi tells people TO DO and that is,
    suck-up to the prevailing mythology in the CULTure you happen to be surrounded by.
    Hence, Ben Stein is flying first class and considering buying a private plane and moi ‘tis takin’ the bus and considering purchasing some meat, for WifeyWu, if’in moi can budget it in.

    Stay on groovin’
    (Ain’t ya glad moi didn’t alliterate from A to Z?)
    safari,
    Tor

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  25. Dr. Moran -

    Just wanted to add my voice to those who've already noted that fewer comments doesn't necessarily equal fewer readers. I enjoy learning from the science posts very much (the "junk DNA" series recently in particular, since you referred to it as one that didn't generate a tremendous number of comments), but like others I seldom feel I have much to contribute where your expertise and that of others like T. R. Gregory is evident.

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  26. Larry,
    I definitely respect the fact that you blog under your real identity, and I thing it adds something valuable to the blogosphere when people do so.

    I can also understand why some feel there are worthwhile benefits to blogging anonymously or pseudononymously.

    I would absolutely still read your blog and refer to it in my own if you blogged anonymously. Because it's interesting, and so are a lot of the commenters who hang out here.

    PS - I also enjoyed the junk DNA series. I'm still working on reading more recent posts - it takes time because they're rich in information. One of the initial posts triggered a ton of comments and controversy.

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  27. If you have a secure job or tenure, then there is little reason to blog anonymously. But if you don't, then you have to be worried about every potential future employer 10 years from now googling your name and finding things that might very well cause them to reject you. If Larry didn't have tenure, I wonder if he'd blog in the same way, freely expressing his opinions or using his real name.

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  28. I am one of the majority. I am not a professional scientist, so I do not understand the detailed genetics stuff. But like "everybody" I have an interest in the future of our society and our world. And the simple truth is that scientists seem to provide an objective yet interesting view of the world with new insight. That means you Larry. Thanks.

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  29. For better or worse, scientists more than ever have to communicate the meaning of science to the public to prevent irrationality from taking over public policy. Blogs like yours are serving a valuable purpose in this effort. After all, you end up talking about the meaning of science even when you bash creationism.

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  30. There are countries like France or Canada where certain opinions can get you to prison. For example, it is a crime in France to be of the opinion that the Holocaust never happened (it's not in the US). A French author - sorry, I forgot his name - got into trouble with the law when he suggested that the troubles they had in France last year with the young Muslim immigrants was religion-related! A couple of years ago, a French newspaper got fined for having printed a petition (!!!) of intellectuals who were outraged that an author had been arrested for having an opinion that Antiracism organizations didn't like!

    Even in Canada, some opinions can get you in court because of our hate-speech law. For example, having an impopular opinion about homosexuality can get you to court in Canada.

    Of course, just because you're threatened doesn't mean you'll be charged or even have to go to court, but you'll still have to spend money for a lawyer (ask PZ Myers!).

    Robert M.

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  31. "If Larry didn't have tenure, I wonder if he'd blog in the same way, freely expressing his opinions or using his real name."

    Indeed. It's very easy to sit self-righteously in judgment of anonymous bloggers as being somehow less valid when they post opinions and criticisms. Larry's been tenured so long that he appears to be a bit out of touch with the real world.

    I suppose I'll never get a link from Larry now, but quite frankly I don't give a rat's ass.

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  32. Orac says,

    Indeed. It's very easy to sit self-righteously in judgment of anonymous bloggers as being somehow less valid when they post opinions and criticisms. Larry's been tenured so long that he appears to be a bit out of touch with the real world.

    That's unfair.

    I've never been shy about my identity even when I was an undergraduate and a graduate student. Just because I got tenure before the internet was popular doesn't give you the right to say what you said. I can assure you that I signed all of my letters to the editor and all my letters to people in authority before I got tenure.

    My position is that people have choices. They can choose to attack authority and convention or they can choose to remain silent. If you choose to be outspoken then you can do it by signing your name or you can do it by hiding behind anonymity.

    I have greater respect for those who identify themselves than for those who don't.

    That does not mean that I despise everyone who chooses to be anonymous. I understand some of the fears of revealing yourself to the world.

    Yes, Orac, it is easier for me than for others. I'm sorry if that makes you angry but there's nothing that I can do about it other than quitting my job and that seems a little extreme if it's only pupose is to convince you that I'm sincere.

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  33. I started out posting comments with my actual name. Eventually when PZ expelled me, he published my name in a public post along with other expelled people. This gets me automatically expelled from some blogs, specially those that march under the banner of the red "A".
    (Now I post with my pseudonym "Sanders" which you may click upon to read my real name, if you give a shit hahaha).
    Not that I give a crap... most of those blogs suck. But someone may find my experience informative when thinking about choosing or not to disclose your name upfront. I myself don't care too much if some silly people are playing around with "kill lists". Their gossipy ways make me laugh.

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